—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
14 November 2005

George W. Bush: Man of the Year 2004

Some months ago, I saw a very amusing flick at TropFest, Sydney's short film festival. Sitting on the grass in a park with up to ten thousand other spectators, I found myself gazing up a large screen depicting the ordeal of a woman attacked by a paper replica of George W. Bush. Eh? Well, that's what happens when you throw some toxic chemicals and Time magazine's Man of the Year issue into the dustbin together: the cover picture comes to life and the next thing you know you're being chased around your house by an expressionless, two-dimensional US President. (The incarnation is obviously not meant to be realistic since that's one dimension too many.) There are some clever gimmicks: the poor woman sustains paper cuts during the struggle, and when Bush can't break down the bathroom door to get at her, he simply slides under it. But the funniest moment was provided by the audience when the woman dispatched her tormentor by using a large pair of scissors to chop off the President's head. At that, the crowd burst into spontaneous cheers and applause, followed by a backwash of laughter as we heard each other and self-consciously realised that we were all thinking the same thing. It was a guilty pleasure.

Man of the Year 2004? What was Time magazine thinking?

I'm not revisiting this issue now because the timing is good, or even opportunistic. Sure - Scooter Libby's trial has just begun; Bush was effectively booed out of Latin America last week during his failed attempted to defibrillate the FTAA proposal; and the New Orleans fiasco has exposed his administration as an uncaring lame-duck. There's plenty that we know now about this man that makes a mockery of Time's choice. But that's beside the point. I'm interested in what we knew then, and more specifically, what Time knew then. And for that, we have to return the issue of the Enron scandal, which is back in the public eye once more with the cinematic release of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentary about the company's collapse. Let's recap the facts.

* * *

Enron, one of the largest utility companies in the US, having lost $26bn in stock market value in just seven weeks, filed for bankruptcy in December 2001. The collapse followed an October announcement of third-quarter losses of $638m, and a November announcement that the company had engaged in profit inflation to the tune of $600m over five years. [1] The implosion took with it the pensions, kids' college funds and life savings of thousands of Enron employeees. As Nation columnist David Corn noted:
One of [Enron's] more notorious misdeeds had been preventing workers from selling the Enron stock in their retirement portfolios as the firm was tanking. Company executives, though, had dumped over a billion dollars' worth of their own shares. Enron chief executive officer Ken Lay had even advised employees to buy more stock as the company was heading toward ruin, claiming the low price of the stock made it a great value. But he had pocketed an estimated $50 million in oh-so-prescient sell-offs in the months before Enron's crash.[2]
Andy Fastow, the Enron CFO who played an elaborate shell game with offshore accounts and dummy companies, will serve a 10-year prison sentence. The criminal trial of Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling commences in January 2006.

The Bush connection with Enron? It goes back a long way. Rodolfo Terragno, onetime minister for public works in Argentina, claimed that in 1988 he had received a call from George W. Bush pressuring him to award a lucrative pipeline contract to Enron.[3] In March 2001, Bush dislodged from his position as chairman of FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) the anti-deregulation Curtis Hebert Jr. Bush then replaced him with Pat Wood, a man recommended by Ken Lay, and whose pro-deregulation views were entirely consonant with Lay's business ideology. The ousting of Hebert is alleged to have followed his rebuff of a quid-pro-quo deal from Lay months earlier.[4] In mockery of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, Senator John McCain dubbed Cheney's energy bill the 'No Lobbyist Left Behind' bill. It was no joke: Enron executives had met with Cheney's energy staff several times during the period in which the bill was drafted, and according to a Democratic Congressional committee study of a memo Lay handed to Cheney on 17 April 2001, Cheney's energy bill 'adopts all or significant portions of Enron's recommendations in seven of the eight areas'[5]. As the Smartest Guys in the Room documentary reveals, this influence allowed Lay to postpone the inevitable disintegration of Enron and raise some badly needed cash by sucking California dry during its energy crisis. The continuing blackouts in the sunshine state also had the useful effect of making Democratic governor Gray Davis appear utterly ineffectual at coping with the problem (the Bush administration dismissively insisted that the energy shortfall was not a federal but a state issue), and thus the Republicans were gifted with an opportunity to replace Davis with a ham-acting body-builder.

Not only were the Bush administration and Enron in bed together, but this beast with two backs had a mutual back-scratching relationship. From 1994, Lay and his wife donated $122,500 to Bush's two gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, for example.[6] Energy secretary Spence Abraham took Enron money while serving as senator; Attorney General John Ashcroft had taken $57,000 in contributions from Enron. (And so, ridiculously, the country's top law enforcement officer had to recuse himself from investigating the country's largest corporate scandal.)[7] Enron, in fact, has been the single greatest contributor of cash to George W. Bush's career: the total is alleged to amount to $800,000.

And here's where the 'Man of the Year' issue arises. One of the Enron good-guys who helped to lift the lid on the scandal (she is interviewed in The Smartest Guys in the Room) was Sherron Watkins, the vice-president who detected irregularities in Enron's business practices early on and later went on to testify against upper management in Congress. Want to know what else is interesting about her? She was Time magazine's Person of the Year 2002. (That's her on the right in the picture above).

So here's the obvious question: why would Time magazine choose to honour an exposer of corporate crooks one year, and then two years later bestow the same honour on the man who is up to his neck in their money?

* * *

There is nary a word about the scandal in Time's lengthy article on their 'Man of the Year'. The issue of Iraq's non-existent WMDs is not raised. The contracts awarded to Halliburton in Iraq? Never heard of them. The continuing non-capture of Osama Bin Laden? The severing of longstanding ties with allies in Europe and elsewhere? The trampling of the Kyoto protocol? The abrogation of the ABM treaty in favour of a failed New Missile Defense program? The draft-dodging followed by the dodging of National Guard duty? The massive deficit? Not mentioned.

Robert Fisk frequently quotes Amira Hass as saying that the purpose of journalism is to monitor the centres of power. If that is so, then Nancy Gibbs' and John Dickerson's cloud-cuckooland essay on Bush is a failure of journalism on a colossal scale. Their breathless encomium to a proven liar and geopolitical menace confirms them as courtiers to, not monitors of, the camarilla of powermongers in Washington. Their article begins by admiring the President's footwear ('his shoes are shined bright enough to shave in'[8]) and goes on to deliver bewildering platitudes in bad prose:

For sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively), for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his ten-gallon-hat leadership style and for persuading a majority of voters that he deserved to be in the White House for another four years, George W. Bush is TIME's 2004 Person of the Year.
"I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been in a very reflective mood," says the man who has just replaced half his Cabinet, dispatched 12,000 more troops into battle, arm wrestled lawmakers over an intelligence bill, held his third economic summit and begun to lay the second-term paving stones on which he will walk off into history.
An ordinary politician tells swing voters what they want to hear; Bush invited them to vote for him because he refused to. Ordinary politicians need to be liked; Bush finds the hostility of his critics reassuring. Challengers run as outsiders, promising change; it's an extraordinary politician who tries this while holding the title Leader of the Free World. Ordinary Presidents have made mistakes and then sought to redeem themselves by admitting them; when Bush was told by some fellow Republicans that his fate depended on confessing his errors, he blew them off.
In his pursuit of a second term, Bush was just as radical as he was in his conduct of a pre-emptive war. As a politician, he showed the same discipline, secrecy and nerve he demonstrated in his conduct as President. So he emerges with his faith only deepened in the transformational power of clear leadership. Whether or not the election actually yielded a mandate for his policies, he is sure to claim one for his style, because he stuck to it against all odds, much advice and the lessons of history. And on that choice at least, the results are in.[9]
The only thing more frightening than what this article declines to mention is what it chooses to endorse. A man who is manifestly dim-witted and dangerous does not usually win praise for also being stubbornly so. Pertinacity is not a virtue in itself, only when one is following the right course. So what is the reality of President Bush?

The truth is now so plain that it can be stated plainly: Bush is the most globally detested US President in living memory. No American leader since Warren G. Harding can hold a candle to him for sheer venality and boobery. Most US presidents can visit foreign nations, greet the people in the streets, and expect to be warmly welcomed (recall, for example, the euphoria surrounding Bill Clinton's first visit to Ireland). George W. Bush, on the other hand, can barely set foot in a foreign capitol without provoking something perilously close to a riot, and he himself acknowledged as much in Argentina last week when he stated that "It's not easy to host all these countries, particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me."[10] In domestic politics and global affairs Bush has no friends, just cronies. Among the international press he has no well-wishers, and the few journalists at home who hold a flickering torch for him (the Mark Steyns, the Charles Krauthammers) are so appallingly right-wing that their endorsement merely confirms the worst people believe of him. If Time magazine were going to make someone as universally execrated as President Bush their Man of the Year, they needed firstly to substantially rebut his accusers. They didn't. Given that, they needed to at least find in him a redeeming feature that would substantially eclipse his shortcomings. They couldn't. With Time's pedestalling of George W. Bush, we have thus witnessed the glorification of wrongheaded jingoism by the very apparatus that was best positioned to debunk it. But wouldn't.

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1 See David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2003.
2 Ibid., p. 176
3 Ibid., p. 179
4 Ibid., p. 183
5 Quoted in Corn, p. 186
6 Ibid., p. 176
7 Ibid., p. 180
8 Nancy Gibbs, John Dickerson, 'Person of the Year', Time, 19 December 2004
9 Ibid.
10 Paul Harris, 'Riots shatter Bush hopes of trade deal', The Guardian Weekly, 11-17 November 2005